Philly City Council reforms process for selling city land, sends bill to Kenney

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia City Council unanimously approved legislation that would reform the process for selling thousands of unused city-owned properties on Thursday, sending the bill to Mayor Jim Kenney.

The legislation establishes a centralized agency and process for selling city land, lays out specific timelines for sales, and sets scoring criteria to evaluate land deals, among other things.

“It puts in position certain parameters around the actual process [for selling municipal property] and not leaving it to the whims of any individual in government or out of government,” said Council President Darrell Clarke, a Democrat who was the main sponsor of the legislation.

Clarke and Kenney collaborated on the reform package. Both sought changes to bureaucratic and controversial process for selling city land following numerous news reports that uncovered alleged abuse in the system, chronic undervaluation of land, political dealings and developers getting sweetheart land deals.

Mike Dunn, a spokesman for the Kenney administration, said in an email that the administration supports the “intent of the legislation” but fell short of saying whether Kenney will sign or veto the bill.

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The city has ridden a real estate bull market for years and property values have skyrocketed in some areas, but the city has been slow to unload thousands of vacant lots it owns throughout Philadelphia.

The legislation eliminates the Vacant Property Review Committee (VPRC) and establishes the Philadelphia Land Bank as the central agency overseeing the sale of vacant and surplus city-owned properties.

The VPRC, created in 2012 at the insistence of Clarke, oversaw about half of all public land sales. Critics have cast the committee as redundant, allowing City Councilmembers to exert greater influence over land sales, and contributing to the city’s pay-to-play political culture.

The VPRC, which is run by a combination of mayoral and council appointees, was involved in a string of mistakes that allowed developers to flip houses for windfall profits. The VPRC’s transactions were later frozen and Kenney put in place land sale reforms earlier this year.

The legislation also establishes a scoring system to sell land rather than relying on the highest bidder.

The metric weighs a project’s economic opportunity and inclusion the highest at 30%, followed by development team experience at 20%, financial feasibility at 20%, public purpose or social impact at 15%, project design at 10%, and offer price at 5%. However, the legislation does not define what qualifies for each metric.

Clarke said the scoring system would create a fairer process for selling city-owned land, compared to the current system which was weighted toward “individuals who essentially had the most money.”

“This notion of the highest bidder created an environment where individuals who had all the money, all the resources continued to get all the properties,” he said. “And we don’t think that’s fair.”

An applicant can avoid using the scoring process to purchase public land if the property is used as a side or rear yard; a nonprofit community garden; a development if 51% of the project is for affordable housing; and projects that benefit the community, such as daycare centers, senior centers and facilities that benefit low- and moderate-income households.

The bill sets timelines for advertising the sale of public land (at least 30 days) and for the consideration of bidders’ applications (120 days). The new timelines change the current system, in which bidders could wait months for a response.

Under the bill, the city could claw back properties if a buyer fails to comply with the terms of the sale.

The reforms do not affect the city’s unwritten rule of “councilmanic prerogative,” a tradition that gives district councilmembers the final say on land deals in their districts.

The reforms would go into effect on Jan. 1, if Kenney signs the bill.

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.